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In April 2013 I visited Turkey to present a series of talks on media and peace sponsored by the International Press Institute. President Barrack Obama had been in Ankara only days before reaching out to the Muslim world in friendship and “mutual respect” and expressing hope that peace talks between the Kurdish rebels and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would achieve “real progress.” Those talks were quickly overshadowed when Erdoğan’s heavy-handed police action against protests in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square fueled massive popular uprisings across the nation. Four weeks later, the ongoing, loosely coordinated protests and counter-demonstrations and attacks on protesters by Erdoğan’s Islamic Justice and Development Party members bring to light deep, intractable rifts across this seemingly tolerant, democratic country.
This essay written in June 2013 draws from my recent visit as well as more than a decade of research, teaching and engagement with peace initiatives throughout the Middle East to suggest why the centuries-long struggle over Turkish identity took root in Taksim Square and spread like weeds.
“What the heck did you say to those people, Mom? I mean Turkey’s falling apart.”
I laughed defensively, but he wasn’t the first to ask about my visit to Turkey a few weeks earlier and the subsequent popular uprising. I had returned to Turkey to present a series of talks to journalists in Istanbul and Izmir about giving voice to the Kurds, the century-long Other within Turkey. My talks on peace journalism were a response to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent world-acclaimed and domestically popular peace talks with the separatist and sometimes-violent Kurdish rebels, or PKK. I had been told, repeatedly, that everyone in Turkey wanted peace and every journalist wanted to become a peace journalist. The truth was, of course, more complicated.
The myth of universal popularity cracked at a seaside cafe in Izmir, where a group of men appointed by the prime minister had come to speak with “the people” about the peace process. Polls and political history make obvious that Izmir is the center of the Turkish province most solidly opposed to the peace process for reasons of regional autonomy, economic inequality, political in-fighting, and, yes, historical enmity and racism. On this sun-filled Saturday, a gaggle of press and plain-clothes secret service and military stood casually around the “reconciliation” commission of well-educated men in Western suits and crisp white shirts quietly enumerating the benefits of Mr. Erdoğan’s peace plan to the local secular elite, including my host, the mayor of Izmir, and others similarly prominent.
A handful of locals in working clothes, fishermen or construction workers, perhaps, approached. News cameras lowered and security officers fingered wired earpieces, abandoning their failed effort to blend in. The spokesman for the local men addressed the table with animation, but quickly the head of the commission interrupted. The local resumed, and the commissioner interrupted again. Voices grew louder and more heated, security officers drew closer, and nearby tables turned to watch as the commissioner stood, yelling, finger pointing, and the locals stomped away. Then the commission returned to its conversation.
When Izmir joined Istanbul as one of the hotbeds of public protest flaring up across the country slightly more than a month later, the heavily censored press mentioned neither the deep-seated public disagreement over the proposed peace with the Kurds, nor the broader schism between well-educated middle class secularists and working class conservative Islamic Turks. Despite the courageous actions of individual journalists, the putatively free Turkish press operates largely under the overt and covert control of the government. For all its recent acclaim by the Obama administration and other Western countries as the most democratic nation in the Middle East, Turkey holds the distinction of jailing more journalists than any other country in the world. Today hundreds of military officers, academics, opposition politicians, and journalists—especially Kurdish journalists—sit in jail charged, or awaiting charges of plotting against Erdoğan or fomenting revolution and terrorism. Virtually every Turkish journalist I know has spent time either in jail or in the captivity of opposition fighters. It long has been a badge of honor to resist government oppression, but the scale of the overtly political imprisonment under Erdoğan with no loss of support from Western allies has eroded the will of many to resist. Or so it seemed.
In Istanbul, I stayed in the Emine Sultan Hotel nestled just two blocks from the throbbing traffic of Taksim Square. Where the street to the Square narrows and the light sifts slowly between buildings that hunker into a petrified arbor, the pace slows, and something less modern holds sway. The dust-rich glow of stringed tamburas and baglamas and a tangle of unfamiliar wooden instruments that cling like elongated bats to the low ceiling and walls of a subterranean shop warms the daylong dusk. The jangle of glass teacups and tiny spoons against saucers echoes in the gloom, and the hollow clang of brass pots and kettles punctuates the murmur of a nearby kitchen. Dark Turkish coffee scents the muezzin’s call that echoes soft like the voice of the wind.
Here and there a skinny lane with tiny and forgotten shops bearing testimony to a proprietor’s whims wobbles away, and the beautiful Galata Tower, like some oversized thumbtack, marks a warren of streets and dead-end alleys that for centuries has housed Istanbul’s foreign residents on this northern side of the Golden Horn. The ache of melancholy and unrequited desire fills this labyrinth of twilight lanes where women peer from latticed windows or linger in darkened doorways swaddled in scarves, mismatched blouses, misshapen sweaters, and faded floral skirts that dust black shoes with heavy soles. Soot-streaked stone hollowed by a million footfalls speaks of what has been, and the shabby facades of lush-shadowed male-dominated hookah bars and dilapidated coffee shops cloaked in blood-colored tapestries mounded with woven pillows exude “the poetic grandeur” of a city “tarnished” by history, as Orhan Pamuk wrote in his eponymous novel of the city. Istanbul’s crumbling walls and dingy storefronts are the quotidian embodiment of a history of glory and defeat that gives depth to a place at once frozen in time and vibrant and ever renewed.
Out in Taksim Square, cabbies honk and holler at the crowds and curse the construction trucks dumping girders in the road. Buses squeal to a stop, cough oily exhaust into sun-specked Gezi Park, and burp passengers into the crowds rising from the subway. Hawkers in grease-streaked aprons cry out. With swift motions, they shave rosemary-scented lamb into white paper-wrapped pitas and thrust dripping doner kebabs into sacks. I dash out of the way of a tram that clangs up Istiklal Avenue and parts waves of women in headscarves and long dark coats carrying Banana Republic and Prada bags and threading expertly among endless clumps of men who stroll arm in arm and women in tight skirts, ripe lipstick and stiletto heals tottering down the cobbled street.
Istiklal, or Independence, Avenue runs from Taksim to Tünel Square as the major pedestrian shopping avenue in Beyoğlu, the commercial quarter of this “European” part of Istanbul. The street teams with bars and international brand stores and money exchanges frequented by tourists and rural Turks. Cell phone stores with flat glass facades that would be at home in Tokyo or Barcelona or Peoria, Illinois, assert pride of place over glass-domed passageways and colonaded arcades like cornucopias overflowing with gold-filled jewelry stores and overstuffed antique shops whose octogenarian owners take tea from hand-held hanging brass trays. Above me, swarms of shoppers rest weary ankles in open-air, second-floor disco restaurant bars that pour electronic music onto the street. The burnt-skin odor of roasting chestnuts and cinders mingles with the cigarette smoke of the teens gambling at the mouths of the alleys. Children dash about only to be grabbed roughly by stern-faced elders, and policemen with young faces and bulging weapons stare and obstruct passage.
What Pamuk calls “a monotonous monolingual town in black and white” is, for this occasional visitor at least, more than some flattened snapshot in which people pose, more than the theater in which they strut. Istanbul is the idea of itself made manifest, the raw material from which its people form their own character, the protean space that shapes and reciprocates human activities. It is a city of deep memory, a space cluttered with treasured mementos whose origin and significance are but vaguely remembered but whose presence fills the senses and occupies the imagination. There is no single element that defines this city. Its flavor, like the identity of the people of Turkey, arises from its profuse abundance and variety. Like some well-seasoned kofte, each element is essential, to be mourned if lost.
The city’s face seemed unalterable when last I had seen it five years before, but when I visited on the cusp of the public protests, I found it much changed. Construction cranes punctuate the skyline alongside the omnipresent minarets that soar like the clouds of gulls above the Bosphorus ferries. Everywhere block-long and stories-tall construction tarps display life-size images of the modern buildings that will rise where Ottoman era apartments stood. Throughout the city, rapid and seemingly random development disturbs the complex balance and pleasing scale of neighborhoods hundreds of years in the making. Here a three or four-story mall of globalized merchandise lurches over a spot long occupied by what had been, for me, the Istanbulite version of the old southern country store, with bins and barrels and trays and tins and tubs and dishes and platters spilling over with handmade treats wrapped in sparkly paper, pistachios and walnuts and brittles and chewy fruits and thick syrups and long strings of nuts dipped in thickened fruit sauce and brightly colored ground spices, and the women in white lab coats behind the counter. There the beloved movie theater and “pudding” shop with its rounded glass displays and somnolent booths draped in the aroma of caramel are gone.
Even before I leave Turkey, Taksim Square is being prepared for demolition, and the building frenzy that Erdoğan believes is propelling Turkey’s fast-growing economy includes a $3 billion road and rail bridge across the Bosphorus linking the Asian and European sides of Istanbul. While the prime minister boasts that it will be the world’s widest and longest bridge, my Istanbulite friends call it “atrocious,” “preposterous,” and both unnecessary, as the city’s third bridge across the Bosphorus, and ridiculously expensive. To launch the project named after Selim the Grim, a 16th century ruler whose expansion of the Ottoman Empire included domination of much of the Middle East, Erdoğan said a Muslim prayer, offending secular Turks, and told those assembled: “The Ottomans left behind creations which conquered the people’s hearts. Just like our ancestors, we are continuing to write history and leave behind creations.”
Major initiatives that will affect Istanbul include a third airport, planned as the largest in the world; several transportation tunnels under the Bosphorus; and a high-speed train link to Ankara that will vastly improve connection between the capital and the nation’s largest city but will disrupt or destroy all manner of communities and ecosystems the length of its proposed path. Throughout Turkey, N.G.O.s, citizens and environmental groups sporadically object to Erdoğan’s autocratic decisions about what history to write and what projects to create. But this is the face of the government’s development of Turkey, I am told by my host only weeks before the government bulldozers begin to topple the trees of Gezi Park and convert Taksim Square into a mall inside a replica military barracks and an enormous mosque. “It offends everyone,” she says, “but we have no say.”
The beat of Istanbul’s political activism throbs in Taksim Square, known as Republic Square because of its dedication to the founding of the modern Turkish republic. Alternately filled with crowds of tourists or picnicking families or picketing protesters, clashes between police and the public are common here. So I am not surprised to learn of the occupation of Taksim Square by a score of Turkish environmentalists using their bodies to protect the trees of Gezi Park, a rare green public space that adjoins the Square. It’s a small tulip-scented park surrounded by trees with planted beds, paved walkways, a few fountains and benches, some patches of grass, and a prominent statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. One mightn’t think it worth fighting for.
Taksim Square has a long history, though. It once held the Topçu Artillery Barracks, now recalled as the site of a 1909 massacre of Christian army officers that symbolizes, for many contemporary Turks, the strategic use of religion to stop modernization. Before their demolition in a massive renovation of the Square in 1936, the barracks housed a football stadium. The Square has hosted Istanbul’s leading art gallery, its most popular nightclub, and political rallies with large and fractious crowds of socialists, nationalists, conservatives and social democrats. Since the ‘70s, but interrupted by government edict, annual May Day marches and speeches by union workers and N.G.O.s have tended to disturb those in power even when they were orderly, which they often were not. In 1977, 42 people died in the most violent of these marches, now remembered as Bloody Sunday.
This year, after mounting public protest to rumors of Erdoğan’s planned construction of a mosque on Taksim Square, the prime minister again banned the May Day activities, and the Occupy Gezi movement took over the Square a few weeks later. It was almost predictable that Erdoğan would dispatch police with tear gas and pepper spray to storm the people trying to prevent “massacre” of the last trees standing in the Park, but it was stunning to receive posts from my Turkish friends documenting the evolution of the small peaceful gathering into massive, sometimes-violent confrontations in cities across Turkey. As I watch from a distance, my mood swings as wildly as the images they send: police spraying chemicals directly into the faces of unarmed women or protesters dancing, singing and drinking with police; crushed empty Agent Orange canisters reportedly used on the crowd or people in Guy Fawkes masks rinsing the weeping eyes of feral dogs suffering the chemical attacks. Soon hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million, right- and left-wing Turks are marching, banging pots and pans, to protest not only Erdoğan’s mandated destruction of Gezi Park but also his censorship of the media and oppression of rights and liberties as well as the sale of public lands to private developers. Some resist the increasing infusion of religion into politics or its loss of prominence in daily life. Some are simply angry because of Erdoğan’s recent edict virtually banning the consumption of alcohol. And some rally in support of the prime minister and his planned construction of the mosque in Taksim Square.
The initial sit-in becomes a tent camp in the Park with free food, a lending library, and health services reminiscent of the 2011 Zuccotti Park Occupation in New York City and evoking references to the Arab Spring. Days later, police burn the camp down and return again with water cannons, armored vehicles and tear gas. After a court order halts the construction to allow public concerns to be addressed, Erdoğan claims that as head of the Islamic Justice and Development Party he speaks for a majority of Turks and will not respond to the “hooligans,” “looters” and “terrorists” protesting in Taksim Square. As the violence increases—with four dead, 11 blinded, and more than 8000 injured by mid-June—and international pressure mounts, Erdoğan meets with the Gezi Park Occupiers, moderates his position and offers compromise. But only hours later, Erdoğan galvanizes his supporters with strident rhetoric and assurances that the rabble in Taksim will never alter his plans for a mosque and shopping mall. His armed police again stampede the Square as shouts of “Taksim is ours” rise above screams of fear and clouds of acrid gas.
The amorphous concerns of the group occupying Gezi Park and, indeed, the fluidity of its membership reflect the nature of the city itself. Like the occupiers, Istanbul seems always to be, and to be striving to become, several mutually exclusive things. The most remarkable trait of a city so often veiled in haze or mist or rain is its lack of clear identity, its pervasive unease, its unsettledness like that of a small child kept too long in his seat. The essential duality of the intersection of two cultures comes into play. For even today, the city is poised between Europe and Asia as well as the simultaneous and yet contradictory urges toward authoritarian autocratic rule and the messy contentiousness of democracy. Certainly the city’s physical variety and its seemingly endless juxtapositions—of opulence and poverty, of modernity and antiquity, of religious and secular, to name but the most obvious—contribute.
Everywhere one sees the layering of one and a quarter centuries of Islamic democracy, of religious sovereignty and separation, of Byzantine glory and imperial dominion, of decay and loss and development. The rich diversity of the city embraces its deep history in a way that remains open to multiple readings and conjures surprising truths, for one expects, always, around the next corner, just beyond that tumble-down wall or decrepit storefront, to find a palace of surpassing beauty, or a breathtaking vista across the water. Such varied and open readings of Istanbul and of Turkish history are the turf of multiple and conflicting Turkish identities. Here the stones themselves are Janus faced, constructing future development as readily as preserving the past. Orthodox domes transform into Islamic minarets. Ottoman-era buildings breathe antiquity, built as they are from the stones of the ancient city walls, and the hand-chiseled cobbles of Istiklal Street are re-purposed by the Occupy Gezi movement into projectiles to resist Erdoğan’s solitary re-imagining of Taksim Square as Istanbul catapults blindly into an invented globalized future … and the people resist.
It is the trees of Gezi Park at issue, of course, for the Park is truly a rare public green space in one of the world’s largest cities. Like the squatters who remained for months sitting atop old-growth trees in the Pacific Northwest to prevent logging or the human blockades formed to prevent construction of international oil pipelines, Turkish environmentalists struggle to protect a bit of nature within the city of nearly 17 million people that sprawls across what once were seven wooded hills. They see the removal of the trees as a violation of an unwritten compact between the city and its people that Istanbul should remain always a livable space, but the destruction of the trees also symbolizes global defoliation and desecration of the earth, and the privileging of profit over beauty, corporate and governmental greed over human need.
But beyond the trees themselves, it is the memories of what has occurred or been conceived or ended beneath those Gezi Park trees and in and around Taksim Square that propels others to join the protest. Here non-environmentalists, older people and perhaps their children or even grandchildren sit in solidarity with a past they imagine as central to their identity and that of the city and of Turkey. Like so many mental snapshots, memories of moments here sitting quietly in dancing shade with the bustle of the Square all around, sticky-fingered children racing down the park’s paths to the statue of Atatürk, or final goodbyes as heavy-laden loved ones climb slowly aboard a long-distance bus construct the house of cards that forms the inner self, ties us to place, and makes us protect it with our bodies. The replacement of this public space with a multi-story mosque symbolizes for some the much-feared dominion of religion over the city and the republic.
Here, perhaps, is the crux. For through the occupation of Taksim Square, the people of Turkey have done their best to remove the veil from the eyes of the West, to display the antidemocratic and the anti-communitarian in their country. For nearly half the people of Turkey, democracy has a hollow ring; the right to be heard and to petition government for redress has gone badly awry; Erdoğan’s promise of a truly secular democracy seems fraudulent. They see a prime minister—who behaves increasingly like an imperial sultan and employs increasingly overt and strident references to religion to suppress opposition—find support and justification from the West. And the people revolt when the sultan takes on the trees of Gezi Park and police assault the peaceful Taksim protesters.
For Istanbul, and perhaps Turkey as well, Taksim Square and Gezi Park serve as the seed-crystal of identity. This space is the catalyst of political engagement, the pulsing heart of the city and its links to the republic and beyond. It is the sacred secular, the intimate communal in which Turks express themselves and find connection with others. It is both the symbolic and the actual public sphere in which democracy wrestles, in which waving flags and ringing pots and pans stand in for the banging of the drums and the call to freedom.
In Pamuk’s words, Taksim Square is “the cradle of the memories of millions.” And the people protect those memories just as Pamuk carefully preserves his
memory of a large and very beautiful chestnut that stood before his childhood home in the posh Nişantaşi district of Istanbul. In a recent post to the New York Times blog, Pamuk described how, when the city planned to remove the tree to make way for street improvements, three generations of Pamuks camped out in the coolness beneath its branches. Eventually, the city agreed to leave the chestnut in peace, and the family’s success over the “presumptuous,” “authoritarian” governors of Istanbul created “the shared memory [that]… binds us all together,” Pamuk said.
“Today, Taksim Square is Istanbul’s chestnut tree.”
The protesters who first stood guard in Taksim Square beside the Gezi Park trees did not achieve clear or rapid success. Instead, they spawned populist protest nationwide and increasingly vitriolic language and repression by Erdoğan. As weeks drag on, government supporters wielding sticks join Erdoğan’s strongmen in widespread attacks on the protesters, and the prime minister stirs up his followers with inflammatory speeches blaming the unrest on foreigners and the fabrications of their news media. Still, for the moment at least, the Gezi Park trees remain and protesters across Turkey stand for hours like the chestnut trees.
Susan Dente Ross is a writer of recipes, poetry, textbooks, creative nonfiction and research on peace, journalism and their intersection. When not finding inspiration kayaking the clean waters and hiking the vast woodlands of Idaho with her year-old lab, she raises organic vegetables and bakes lemon curd berry tarts. She also is a professor of English at Washington State University, a former journalist and a trainer of peace journalism around the world. In all these things, as in the writing of this essay, she benefits immeasurably from the gifts and insights of her friends, who know who they are. Special thanks are due to the International Press Institute, Ferai Tinç, Sevda Alankuş and numerous others for their generous support of her recent trip to Turkey.